Imagine a young Paul Lynde in a toga and you might have some sense of Danny Scheie's swishy portrayal of the eponymous, bloodsucking Roman emperor in Amy Freed's new comedy. As he sashays around the stage, you can't quite tell from moment to moment whether he's kidding or about to disembowel you. When Nero commissions the eager-skeptical hack playwright Scribonius (John Vickery, bearing an expression of perpetual concern) to write a bio-epic about Nero, to portray him as a nice fellow rather than the sloth who murdered both his mother (Lori Larsen) and the wife he abandoned for a blonde beauty mistress, Poppaea (Caralyn Kozlowski), jokes fly about new play development because Freed's homage to Plautus is really about the redemptive powers of theater. In an age when the thoughtful-stodgy kinds of plays penned by aging Scribonius yield to Roman Idol entertainments that Nero cherishes (and even performs in), Scribonius' dramatic study of Nero and his mother actually incites a murder oops. So much for theater bringing out the best in us. Oh, yes, and Rome burns. Yet the scintillating ideas and funny repartee in Freed's play feel rushed into production. Not only is the script still in need of some serious clipping (stories are told twice in succession by different characters for little apparent reason), Sharon Ott's staging feels oddly lethargic and too polite for the slapstick and farce that reside latent in the text. As in the plays of Plautus, the plot is so thin, the comedy really hangs on the mercurial humor. The style over substance demands effervescent performances, and only Scheie rises to that standard amid an otherwise perfectly pleasant ensemble. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Tues.-Sun., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Jan. 25. (714) 708-5555.
Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:45 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays, 2 & 7:45 p.m. Starts: Jan. 13. Continues through Jan. 25, 2009